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The Moral Failure of the Death Penalty

    The DC Sniper was executed Tuesday night by lethal injection for the slaying of Dean Harold Meyers. John Allen Muhammed, and his teenage accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo, terrorized the Washington region in 2002 during their three-week shooting spree.  

    Opponents of the death penalty are accused of never thinking about the victims. But I oppose the death penalty, and I think of the victims all the time. In fact, I believe that we give the victim’s feelings too much sway in the penalty phase of a trial, so that our courts don’t dispense justice in the best interest of society as much as they meet out something akin to the vendetta justice of a blood feud. 

    Cheryl Witz’s father, Jerry Taylor, was murdered by John Allen Muhammed and his teenage accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo. She witnessed the execution, justifying her presence with, “He basically watched my dad breathe his last breath. Why shouldn’t I watch his last breath?”  

    While her anger is comprehensible, why should her private grief automatically override the interests of the community when an execution clearly implicates us all? It seems to me that we as a community surrender some of our civility when we allow human sacrifice simply because it offers victims a sort of joyful relief.

    Virginia Governor Tim Kaine did not halt the execution because he said he could “find no compelling reason to set aside the sentence that was recommended by the jury and affirmed by the courts.” How’s this for a compelling reason: It should be the work of a civilized pluralistic society to restrict the retaliatory impulse of Hatfield-McCoy blood feuds. 

    I’m neither naïve about the seduction of retaliation, nor am I ignorant about the perils of giving into the impulse for payback. 

    When I was 16 years old I stabbed and almost killed my brutal father. He never broke another bone in my body. Under almost any moral code, I was entitled to stab my father since I did it in self-defense. But there is a way that having a right to do something doesn’t necessarily make something the right thing to do. 

    In fact, there is a way in which a victim can victimize their selves when they become consumed with rage and obsessed with retribution. Savage hatred can only ultimately denunciate the good in us. Sixteen years after that incident with my father, a fellow prisoner sold my Playboy magazine, and no prisoners thought it inappropriate that I bit off a piece of his ear in retaliation. 

    In a solitary confinement cell, where I decided to alter the violent criminal trajectory of my life, I realized that emancipation from violence cannot be underwritten with more violence. So I diminished my strong impulse for retribution, what I considered the root of all my thuggery, and I became a pacifist.

    Today I contemplate how challenging it will be to discourage my daughter from the socially permissible ethic of reprisal. (Teachers will tell you that when they break up fights, boys will tell them that their fathers told them to always hit back.)

    In retrospect, the favorite part of my entire antisocial experience was getting the prosecutor and victim to hate me as much as I proclaimed to hate their society. And if I could frustrate a cop or prison guard and get them to break the law to conquer me—beat me while handcuffed, or lie in court to gain a conviction—then by the perverse logic of the criminal, I imagined myself the moral victor.

    It was as if they lacked faith in their virtue over my vices when they resorted to my low level of moral mediocrity. We are mislead like those cops and guards who broke the law to prove their superiority to me, if we believe that an execution is the only way to confirm the societal values that the criminal is thought to have violated.

    Some rape victims, and people whose loved ones have been killed, have found ways to disengage from the compulsive desire for bitter revenge.  They refuse to allow the violence to disrupt their principles. They refuse to give the bad guy the satisfaction of living in fear or walking around angry all the time. Their moral strength is restraint, and they are my chief heroes today.  And they're our examples of how the cycle of settling the score is ever going to be broken.